It's Not Magic
Writings of a techie wizard
Wed, 20 Jul 2011
The Greatest Tragedy of American History
After posting last week about how the Supreme Court's role has evolved since the US Constitution was adopted, I did some more poking around on the Charters of Freedom site. I found a page on the US Civil War that includes the following interesting paragraph:
Those who attended similar history classes to the ones I had may well wonder: what about slavery? It isn't mentioned at all in the (admittedly short) Charters of Freedom page. But Lincoln himself would not have been surprised, since he said often that his primary concern was the Union, not slavery. In a letter to Horace Greeley in 1862, he wrote:
What's more, the leaders of the Confederacy would also not have been surprised to read that the Union went to war to assert Federal supremacy over the states. This post by Mencius Moldbug includes an interesting quote from R. L. Dabney, who was a chaplain in the Confederate Army and chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson:
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in American history, in my opinion, is that the South was able to base its economy on slavery. The Framers of the US Constitution basically punted on the slavery issue, and I suppose we can't really blame them, since they were having a tough enough time getting a Constitution in place at all. They did at least manage to put in the clause that ended the slave trade after 1808. After that, according to what students in US schools are taught in history class, the South kept its slavery-based economy while the North realized that slavery was wrong and worked to abolish it, eventually leading to the US Civil War, when the issue was decided once and for all.
But what isn't often talked about is that the South had a valid point too. The Union was supposed to be a balance between Federal power and States' rights, and yet Federal power kept expanding. Had the South taken a stand in defense of what the Constitution was supposed to stand for, on any issue other than slavery, they would at least have had a chance of being heard. All during the antebellum period, the South kept trying to keep the Federal government from getting too large and taking on too much power. The South tried to make sure the Federal government respected the Constitution, and tried to keep Federal power from being used to favor some parts of the country over others. But the South was mostly disregarded, because they were defending slavery. That one fact was enough to outweigh everything else. (To be fair, while the South defended states' rights when a state was supporting slavery, they were quite ready to insist on using Federal power over states' rights when a state was against slavery, as in the case of Wisconsin's attempted nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.)
The North's hands were not exactly clean, either. Northern merchants, particularly those of New England, profited from the slave trade until it ended. And as noted above, the North did not hesitate to use its growing industrial superiority to its advantage in national politics (though to be fair, President Andrew Jackson, who was in office during the Nullification Crisis, was a southerner from Tennessee). Meanwhile, the cotton gin gave the South a staple crop that sustained its economy just long enough for the slavery issue to boil over, and for the South's leaders to have solidified their position on states' rights and the necessity of secession if they could not get what they considered to be fair treatment at the North's hands.
So from the South's point of view, they were, as Dabney says, simply asserting their right to opt out of a country and a Constitution that had morphed into something they could no longer sign up to. But the slavery issue was enough to close off even that option. Lincoln could say that the war was about the Union, not slavery; but the very fact that he felt he had to say this, and say it often, shows that in the minds of most people in the North, the primary issue was slavery, not the Union. They were fighting to free the slaves, and it was only to achieve that objective that they were willing to change the Union from a completely voluntary agreement between "Free and Independent States", as the Declaration of Independence has it, to something that, in this respect, was more like the Mafia or the IRA: once you're in, you're never out. As Confederate general John B. Gordon wrote:
When I called this a tragedy, I was not just talking about the South, as if I were rehashing Gone With The Wind. I was talking about all of the United States of America. Our entire nation changed as a result of these events, and it wasn't entirely for the better. But given the strongly held convictions on both sides, with some genuine merit on both sides, how could it have been avoided? Both sides were trapped, not just by their flaws, but by their principles, into a situation where there was no longer any compromise possible, and so more than half a million Americans had to die. That is a tragedy.
Postscript: Not Entirely A Tragedy?
Another thing that isn't often talked about is that Europe really, really wanted the South to win the US Civil War. As the article just linked to notes, this was one reason why Lincoln changed his tune and issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, explicitly making it a goal of the war to free the slaves. Europe, up until then, had played dumb and said that, well, since the US Government had said that it was not fighting to free the slaves, but only to preserve the Union, there was no moral issue involved, and so it was quite okay for them to help the South. Lincoln realized that he had to take away that smokescreen.
But why did Europe want the South to win? The article linked to above says it was because they wanted the American experiment with "democracy" to fail, but I think it's more than that. I think they knew, even then, that the United States, if left to itself, was going to become a superpower, and they wanted to nip that in the bud. Many people these days might well say a non-superpower USA would have been a better outcome. But consider some alternative paths that history could have taken.
First, suppose the South had won the Civil War, and ever since, there had been two countries between Canada and Mexico, instead of one. In that case, I strongly suspect that Germany and France, for example, would still be fighting each other, just as they did for centuries before the US came along. Western Europe (and Japan) would not have had more than half a century of peace following World War II, courtesy of the United States of America. A divided USA and CSA, I believe, would simply not have had either the strength or the will to get involved in Europe's affairs to such an extent.
In the light of this alternative, the Union was more important than slavery, just as Lincoln believed. But now consider a second alternative: suppose slavery had not been an issue. Suppose that the South had had to transform its economy as the North did, so that the question of slavery was simply taken off the table. Would the South still have stood up for those ideals that Dabney enumerated, while the North pushed for more Federal power? Would the Union still have been fractured, but without the issue of slavery to make it worthwhile, in the eyes of the people of the North, to fight to preserve it? We might have ended up in much the same situation as the first alternative, with two countries instead of one, but split not just over slavery, but over an entire spectrum of political ideas.
And there's even a third alternative: suppose the Union had not been fractured. Suppose that, not just slavery, but all of the Constitutional questions that are raised in the quotes above, had been peacefully solved by the middle of the nineteenth century, by finding a reasonable equilibrium between Federal power and States' rights. Would even a unified United States of America, having gone through that process, have been willing to get involved in European wars? Would we have remained isolated on our side of the oceans, wanting to avoid what George Washington in his farewell address called "entangling alliances"? Could we, even, have been forced to get involved by an attack on American soil worse than 9/11, worse than Pearl Harbor?
Of course playing the what-if game is entertaining, but you can't let it get out of hand. We have the history we have, and we can't go back and change it; we can only try to learn from it. I am not really trying to argue that the way things turned out was, all things considered, the best of all possible worlds. It might have been, but if so, that just shows that even the best of all possible worlds can suck pretty bad. And not just because six hundred thousand Americans died in the US Civil War. If we are going to be fair about the record since, we have to consider, not just the fact that the US kept Western Europe at peace after World War II, but the fact that it arguably contributed to making the situation so dire that World War II happened in the first place. Not to mention that the Union has continued on the path of more and more centralized power, a trend which not everyone agrees is a good thing.
Perhaps the deepest lesson we can learn from the US Civil War is that people can honestly disagree even about fundamental principles. On the last day of deliberation of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Ben Franklin was asked, "What have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?" Franklin replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it." Both sides in the US Civil War sincerely believed they were fighting to keep it. And both sides were right, and wrong. But once the fight was over, those who had fought showed each other respect. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston died of pneumonia contracted when he took off his hat as a sign of respect at the funeral of his old adversary, Union general Sherman. Today the USA gets scant thanks from Europe for keeping that continent at peace since 1945, and Republicans and Democrats in the US seem unable to credit each other with any good intentions at all. I doubt if any leaders of the various political factions, in the US or in the world as a whole, could write the kind of fair summary of their opponent's views that General Gordon wrote of his. That's something we need to fix if their sacrifice is to be, if not less tragic, at least not futile.
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